Maybe Putin's Russia is Bad at War?
Occam and his very sharp razor
The first time Stalin tried to invade Finland, he got embarrassed. Badly. Historians of Soviet military history often relish the absolute comparative spanking that a tiny Finland inflicted on the ginormous Red Army. To me, failure is far more interesting than success, and the “Winter War” is a particularly delicious example of huge military failure. Everyone enjoys watching too-big things and self-important people fall on their faces — David and Goliath etc — but Stalin had built a bad army, therefore the ultimate failure was aggregate. A whole lot of people had to be very stupid together, all at once, to make it happen. That Stalin had carefully curated the officer corps through purges does not detract from the point that his army performed poorly.
Failure in military affairs almost always takes at least days, usually weeks or even months, to become fully manifest. Arguably, the German defeat at the Marne in 1914 was the overall defeat of Germany in the war, but it took weeks of fighting to happen and the full effects did not become clear to anyone until the Second Battle of the Marne four years later. So consider just one data point: Vladimir Putin lost more armored vehicles in the first few hours of this invasion than the entire coalition lost against Iraqi forces on the ground in 1991, and contrary to popular belief Iraqi units did resist. One might argue that a desert war is different from this one, and it is true that geography is king. My point is that clearly, someone never took account of geography when they planned this offensive. Was that a personal failure of Putin? I doubt it. But the buck will stop with Putin, who — at this rate — may not outlive his war. He has made that so by appearing on television to humiliate his subordinates like High Chancellor Adam Sutler. He owns this.
In my previous post (linked below), I examined the Putinian flaws that contribute to what we are seeing in Ukraine. The problems in the man are indistinguishable from the flaws of the authoritarian state, perhaps, but let us now consider more aggregate points of failure within Russian arms — defects that are slowing down the colossus. I will begin at Number Six, since there were five in the previous post.
6 - Putin’s Russia is corrupt right down to the wheels. Wheeled armor requires wheels. This statement might seem obvious, but not so obvious is the effect of buying cheap Chinese knockoff tires for vehicles that are going to spend years-to-decades sitting in a motor pool lot exposed to sunshine and weather. The parts of Ukraine that the Russian Army is invading right now — not the coastal or border regions, but the flat inlands — turn into a sea of mud during any wet weather. Known to all as the rasputitsa (распу́тица), and to soldiers of the region as ‘General Mud,’ the spring season has come early in Ukraine. The frozen ground that might have supported an army is instead a slushy bog. Cheap, dry-rotted, economy tires will experience extra stress in soft ground, exploding at their earliest convenience. Now, one may argue that all military equipment is built by the lowest bidder, and that is exactly my point: someone in Russia lined their own pockets by purchasing dubious discount tires with the aid of a Russian general, in fact several generals. Putin’s mafia state is corrupt to the core because there is no check on corruption. It is corruption. Russia has no Congressional committees to meet and urgently discuss tire procurement, no free press to raise alarms and spur action, no accountability for fraud, waste, or abuse. It shows.
7 - Putin’s Russia has failed to adapt its forces. Russia is a huge country that requires a huge force to defend. (Never underestimate how much Putin fears China, too.) This problem was solved under the Soviet system by just ignoring it. That is still the case, but worse. Conscript armies, even cadre systems like the Russian one, produce lots of reservists and very few real professionals. During peacetime, there are too many Russian generals to profit on shoddy cut-rate tires, but also too few motor pool sergeants paid well enough to care about the issue. As soon as wheels hit mud, tires begin to explode, and then vehicles get packed onto the available paved roads in 40-mile long columns, because who wants to get stuck out there alone in the boondocks, surrounded by armed Ukrainians? No one in the Russian Army ever re-thought their system, and because Russian domestic politics is incapable of even proposing significant changes, nothing has changed. This Russian Army is the Red Army minus the communist claptrap, plus some superfluous flimflam, multiplied by the corrosive effects of gangster capitalism.
8 - Putin’s Russia is still dependent on fossil fuel exports. Other than vodka, Soviet exports were almost entirely limited to oil and gas. When the price per barrel dropped in the mid-1980s, the politburo lost badly-needed foreign currency to buy grain and attract skilled/knowledge workers. Monoeconomy is vulnerable to shocks. Russia’s resource curse played a still-debated, but nevertheless significant role in the collapse of the empire. Russia still depends on oil and gas exports for almost two-thirds of the foreign capital that comes into the country, a spigot that Europe has been willing to turn off with remarkable alacrity. This will have knock-on effects over time. Food prices will inflate. Pundits everywhere pontificate about whether the Russian people are willing or able to remove Putin from power; my answer is that Russians will endure bread lines, but not a complete absence of bread. The longer Ukraine fights on, the more likely Russia itself will break — which brings me to the question of finance.
9 - Putin’s Russia has no real tax base to wage a long war. As I have explained in a previous post, there are exactly three, and only three, ways to pay for war. Putin can: (1) inflate his currency, which is already worthless at less than a penny a ruble; (2) sell debt, meaning bonds, when global investors will treat them as radioactive; or (3) tax Russians. The last option is also problematic: Russia’s middle class will soon be broke, and oligarchs have less to give for the war effort when their yachts and penthouses abroad are being confiscated. The one form of taxation readily available to Putin is conscription. As the war stretches out, attrition continues, and desperation builds, this will be his most likely resort, and who knows what that will bring. Russia has not developed alternative economic sectors, providing a segue to my final point in this post:
10 - Putin’s Russia is bad at hearing bad news. Censorship, state media, and all the authoritarian apparatus of the Putinian police state are more than the tools of a single tyrant. They are symptoms of a Russian society that actively avoids engaging hard problems head-on as long as someone is Taking Care Of All The Problems. Aching testimonies from Russian expatriates still in touch with friends and family back home reveal stunted thinking among academics and middle class workers. Whether Ukraine is victorious, or just exacts a terrible toll on Russia, Russians will be the last people in the world to comprehend it. Of course, Putin cannot prevent the bad news from becoming known forever. Russian POWs will inevitably send notification home through the auspices of the Red Cross, to say nothing of the kindly Ukrainian civilians accepting their surrender. Casualty notifications, dead or wounded, must eventually arrive. Russians will be atomized in this knowledge, however, for they are less able to share it, and so setbacks — such as a new conscription class — will always be unexpected, increasing the shock effects they create. In no small way, this is the story of Russia’s reaction to the humiliating collapse of the Soviet superstate, and the ghost of that humiliation is what makes Russians want to believe in Putin.
Stalin was humiliated by Finland in 1939. Today, Finland seems poised to join NATO in response to Russian aggression against Ukraine. As with Germans, who did not learn of their early defeat at the Marne until 1919, the Russian people will be the last to know what they have already lost. It will not make them better at war, just bitter about the experience.